FEATHERED FRIENDS

Chickens have been great friends to human beings in many ways

‘A man’s best friend is his hen.’

A startling statement, and one which rather overlooks the fact that women can have good relationships with chickens as well. But is there any truth in it? Human friends, for example, can share jokes with you, treat you to a coffee and pastry, look after your kids for an afternoon and lend you a tenner, and they do all this without once defecating on your furniture (at least I hope so, for your sake). What have chickens really got to offer that compare with all this?

Perhaps more than you might think. The benefits of chickens as feathery exterminators of garden pests are well documented (I refer of course to insect pests – do not expect your chickens to rid the garden of rabbits, or see off next-door’s Alsatian). It is also known that children enjoy chickens, in particular the thrill of the ‘buried treasure moment’ of reaching into a nestbox and producing a warm, perfect egg. In fact, it is often quite difficult to persuade a child to relinquish an egg found in this way, and on several occasions I have seen a fair portion of my egg allowance leave the garden tightly clutched in the hands of a friend’s offspring. Nevertheless, this teaches children important lessons about where their food comes from, and the importance of feeding and caring for animals correctly. Intriguingly, the presence of chickens also seems to stimulate the creativity of many children – my kitchen abounds with crayoned and felt-tipped pictures of hens, not to mention a couple of poems.

Chickens can also help in the garden with the weeding. True, they are pretty useless if you are trying to remove dandelions from your rudbekia, but they are without equal when it comes to removing self-seeded annuals or perennials. A single scything sweep of a hen’s well-muscled foot and the air is filled with flying nigella or aquilegia seedlings. Most pleasing, and you can put the hoe back in the potting shed for another year. For the purposes of this piece, we will gloss over the devastation wrought by a group of dustbathing young chicks in my herb bed…

Then there is the philosophy of the chicken. There are a phenomenal number of fairy tales, parables and proverbs concerning chickens, spanning history as well as the globe. In stories such as Chicken Licken or The Little Red Hen, chickens are used to show us aspects of our own psyches, from the dangers of credulity and gullibilty to the ultimate benefits of industry and perseverance. To me, the most impressive lesson to be learnt from hens is patience. A broody chicken will sit unmoving on her nest for three weeks, leaving for only a few minutes every few days to eat and ‘go to the toilet’. Apart from this she sits, head sunk low on her breast, waiting. She is also the embodiment of perserverance – if you forcibly eject her from her nest she will return to it at the first opportunity and resume her duties with the same zeal as previously. Legend has it that Robert the Bruce was so inspired by the perseverance of a spider spinning a web that he went out and gave the English a good kicking on the battlefield. Had he been inspired by a broody hen rather than a passing arachnid, he might have ruled the world.

Chickens also play their part in the conservation of endangered species. In his book Last Chance to See, written with Mark Cowardine, Douglas Adams refers to a broody hen being used to transport and ultimately hatch eggs of the endangered New Zealand kakapo, a large, flightless bird. The precious kakapo eggs were placed in a box under the care of a broody hen and then transported through miles of wild forest. The broody selected for the task was chosen after a trial where her box was accidentally swept off the roof of a car by a low branch and flung violently on to the floor. When the conservationists opened her box, there she was, shaken but still sitting determinedly on her eggs.

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Odd though it might sound, chickens have made important contributions to the sum of scientific knowledge. In 1880, shortly after Jenner had made his momentous discovery of the smallpox vaccine, French scientist Louis Pasteur was working on a vaccine against chicken cholera. Hampered slightly by the fact he had no idea how or why vaccines worked (it would be many years before anyone did), he nonetheless persevered in treating chickens with weakened strains of cholera. His efforts were unsuccessful until one day, by pure chance, Pasteur used an old sample of cholera which formed an effective vaccine. Bolstered by this information, Pasteur went on to devise an effective vaccine against anthrax in 1881, and then rabies shortly after.

Chickens have been used in a variety of other scientific and behavioural experiments, but as many of these concern the factory farming industry and its attempts to squash ever greater numbers of birds into ever smaller spaces, we shall not dwell on those. Sadly, although chickens have been good friends to us, we have not always been such good friends to chickens.

Chickens are famous for the staggering variety in their shapes and plumage. Some are so hung with wattles, scaly necks and enormous crests that they might as well be miniature dragons, while those bedecked with plumes, flounces and feathery slippers are more reminiscent of 1930s Hollywood starlets. Chickens are fabulously photogenic (when they stand still), providing colour, shape and a phenomenally beady eye to give a focus to the picture. The technical nature of a ‘breed perfect’ chicken provides a focus for those who might otherwise be collecting stamps, and while stamps are certainly easier to store, chickens have indubitably more uses.

Many people find chickens to be a way of making new friends. Quite apart from children coming to collect eggs and house guests relishing their fresh breakfast egg, chicken keepers soon forge connections with local people. Someone may have hatched out more chicks than they need for their own flock, for example, or have a surplus cockerel, free to a good home. Those who sell their eggs may find they have a shortfall or a surplus one month, and negotiate a deal with a neighbouring chicken keeper. Then there is the trade in information – a fox has been seen at the end of the road, or grain is on sale at the nearby feedstore.

To me, however, the endlessly fascinating aspect of chickens is their personality and behaviour. Whilst generalisations about breeds are both useful and accurate, there are always exceptions to the rule, and it is these which provide the real characters in a flock. We currently have a Cuckoo Marans hen called Billiards who is absolutely determined to lay eggs in our upstairs bedroom. During the summer, the back door is often left open and Billiards has perfected the art of sneaking in through the kitchen, past the sleeping dogs and through the hall to the stairs. I have no idea how she climbs the stairs as I have never, to my chagrin, seen her do it, but somehow she ascends soundlessly up 15 steep steps and makes her way to the spare room. Once here, she invariably gives herself away as the sound of her feet scratching at the floorboards as she searches for a place to lay are clearly audible. Time and again we have carried her back out of the house, and time again she sneaks back in. No other chicken has ever done this, and I have no idea why Billiards does it, but there we are. Chickens, like all good friends, have their little peccadilloes …